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Politics / Issues
Get the latest coverage of the 2021 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

'Calamitous Reality': DeSantis Speaks On Virus, Vaccines And Elections In State Of The State

Ron DeSantis at the podium
Phil Sears / Associated Press
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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Tuesday, March 2, 2021, during his State of the State address at the Capitol in Tallahassee.

The governor touted Florida's growing economy and the reopening of classrooms during his State of the State address.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed success Tuesday for his own handling of the pandemic and urged state lawmakers to pass reliably conservative measures, including what he described as “anti-rioting” proposals, changes to election rules and limits on social media companies kicking users off their platforms.

In his annual State of the State address on the opening day of Florida’s Legislature, DeSantis said the economy was better than expected here despite the pandemic, with most public school classrooms open for students, most businesses up and running and efforts focused on vaccinating the elderly.

He derided pressure to expand quarantine protocols by what he called the “largely affluent Zoom class” of people who can work online.

“While so many other states kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up,” DeSantis said. He added: “We will not let anybody close your schools, we will not let anybody close your businesses, and we will not let anybody take your jobs.”

The governor noted Florida’s unemployment rate – still higher than normal due to the loss of jobs from the pandemic – is slightly lower than the national average. He urged the U.S. government to allow cruise ships to resume sailing, a staple of Florida’s economy. He did not mention the spectacular meltdown of Florida’s unemployment system, which frustrated tens of thousands who tried to request benefits online and led to delays in payments amid an ongoing state investigation.

The governor also said he supports liability protections that would prevent infected customers from suing businesses. He favorably compared Florida’s post-pandemic environment to other states: “The Florida sun now serves as a beacon of light for those who yearn to live in freedom.”

Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, called the governor’s speech a “self-graded report card.”

In a nod to tens of thousands dead from the pandemic across Florida, the governor said he was ordering flags lowered Wednesday.

DeSantis delivered his speech to a largely sympathetic audience: Republicans in Florida control both the House and Senate, who meet over the next 60 days. Republicans made gains there in the recent election, and Florida overall voted for former President Donald Trump over President Joe Biden. Trump now lives in South Florida.

DeSantis – a prominent and staid Trump ally – made his remarks in Tallahassee days after a major speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando. There, he decried “open borders” and criticized reliance on “cheap foreign labor,” themes he has tackled in Florida as governor. Last year, he signed a new law requiring government employers and some private businesses to use E-Verify, a federal electronic system that confirms a worker’s immigration status.

This year, DeSantis has proposed limiting social media companies from suspending user accounts and revising state election laws despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud or problems in Florida. He also proposed applying more pressure on China over a number of international issues and cracking down on protests after this summer’s energized Black Lives Matter movement, denouncing what he said was an “insane fantasy of defunding law enforcement.”

“We will not allow our cities to burn and lawlessness to rule the streets,” DeSantis said.

DeSantis, 42, is increasingly the focus of speculation about a Republican presidential bid in 2024 due to his consistently firebrand, conservative policies and his administration’s response to the pandemic. Florida has suffered from nearly 2 million cases and more than 30,000 deaths.

DeSantis has resisted mandating masks or closing public schools, theme parks, restaurants, universities, bars and beaches. He also targeted vaccinations for seniors in Florida – ahead of teachers and grocery, retail and hospitality workers. He has faced tough criticism in a few cases for making vaccines more widely available in wealthy, white neighborhoods, and for failing to make more-detailed pandemic data available publicly.

“Florida is putting our seniors first because it’s the best way to save lives,” DeSantis said.

The governor has benefitted from billions of dollars worth of pandemic aid from Washington, which has reduced, but not eliminated, the virus’ economic destruction on the state’s budget. “Our current fiscal outlook is much better than the bleak forecast last spring,” he said.

Before he can focus on the White House, DeSantis faces re-election next year. His potential Democratic rivals include Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat currently in any statewide office, Orlando Rep. Anna Eskamani and others.

“I’m disappointed in his priorities,” Fried said after the governor’s speech. “They’re not the people’s priorities.”

A former congressman from Florida’s Atlantic Coast, the governor was narrowly elected by less than one-half percentage point in 2018 over the former Tallahassee mayor.

Last year, the governor focused on themes regarding immigration, teacher pay and water quality. Since then, the governor fulfilled his promise to raise the minimum salary for Florida’s teachers to $47,500 in June. The legislature also adopted his proposed Clean Waterways Act last session, a comprehensive bill intended to reduce water pollution. Environmental groups said the measure didn’t go far enough.

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This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at smatat@freshtakeflorida.com.

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